It’s been the top story in the news this last week – the state visit of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to Britain. His is a dictatorial regime, not exactly known for a good human rights’ record. I’m glad he was given a rough ride in the press and that David Cameron, among others, challenged him about the recent revelation that Saudi government-sponsored extremist hate literature is available in British mosques. Our own kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is very different in nature, we are all thankful to know, even though we are well aware of glaring imperfections. But it sticks in the throat a bit to see the red-carpet treatment of such a regime by the Queen – a Times cartoon summed it up by showing our Queen and Prime Minister bowing down to a barrel of oil!
But today we focus on a very different kind of kingdom with no earthly trappings of power. So let’s consider first of all :
The subjects of this kingdom.
We remember all the saints today – that doesn’t just mean those depicted in stained glass windows, because Paul wrote to the saints in Rome, the saints in Ephesus, the saints in Philippi – and he could just as well have written to the saints in the Woottons. In other words, all who have given their allegiance to King Jesus, all who are committed Christians, are saints in the making.
Saints means ‘the Holy Ones’. You might think that counts me out, until we realise that it means those chosen by God to follow him, those who have asked the Holy Spirit to help them believe in Jesus, those who are seeking to follow him, however imperfectly. So you can call yourself St Joan or St Michael or whatever your name is!
The nature of this Kingdom
Jesus was so excited about the Kingdom he came to inaugurate – he spoke frequently about the good news of the Kingdom of God. Elsewhere we are told that the Kingdom is a matter of righteousness, peace and joy.
Repentance is the key to entering the Kingdom and faith in God’s Son is the way in. Jesus told many parables about the kingdom – about seeking it above all else, about it being a pearl of great price, about the least being the greatest and the poor being treated with respect rather than being down-trodden.
We read about the nature of the Kingdom in the Gospel for today which was, of course, part of the Sermon on the Mount.
The whole point about this kingdom is that it starts in the hearts and minds of the subjects, as they seek to follow the King. So outward allegiance is not the most important aspect at all. It’s not that it does not matter – things such as baptism, confirmation, taking communion, going to church – but these things are to no avail unless they are outward manifestations of a change within. That is why Jesus stressed meekness, a desire for righteousness, being pure in heart, peacemakers, those who are merciful, those who realise they are poor in spirit and therefore need to rely on God’s Spirit. And a special blessing is reserved for those who are persecuted for the Kingdom of God – which has happened down through the centuries and still takes place in some countries today.
The extent of the Kingdom
Jesus stressed that the trappings of power were not to characterise his kingdom – I wonder what he thinks of prince bishops, of the power of the pope, of the wealth of some branches of the church, of the church exercising worldly power as it did particularly from 312 AD and for the following 1500 years in the West. He spoke against extending his Kingdom by the sword. But actually he knew that, rightly interpreted, his Kingdom did have great power and is subversive of earthly kingdoms which abuse power in order to oppress. It has often been said that the true battle is for hearts and minds. Once a person was committed to following Christ in the early centuries, then, although Jesus, St Paul and others encouraged them also to give allegiance to Caesar, when it came to a clash of allegiance, the true Christian would put Jesus first. So when the Emperor first declared himself to be god and demanded worship, that was a bridge too far and Christians who would not give such worship were killed for the faith. But it has been said that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church – the more the church was persecuted, the more it spread. We see this today in China, we saw it in the USSR, – because in the end the devil cannot touch the heart, if we remain true to our Lord.
Which of the original followers of Jesus, who numbered a few hundred initially, could possibly have imagined that in the 21st century there would be 1.5 billion Christians in the world today? As Jesus said, his Kingdom started as a grain of mustard seed but becomes a huge tree.
The Kingdom now and then
There is one other mysterious aspect to this Kingdom, which is sometimes referred to as the now and the not yet. Jesus prayed ‘Thy will be done in earth as in heaven, for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory for ever and ever.’ As we have seen, millions of Christians are trying to do the will of God, very often in difficult circumstances, whether in their own lives or because of the country where they live. If it were not for the presence of God by his Spirit in the lives of these people then this earth would be hell. But still there are limitations in this life, which is why Jesus promised to return and to establish his Kingdom of heaven on earth in the future in a much more visible and obvious way than is possible now. People often think of heaven as a mysterious place ‘up in the bright blue sky’, but the Bible teaches that ‘heaven’ will be on a renewed earth. In the book of Revelation John described this as being like a new Jerusalem descending from heaven to earth and ‘the dwelling of God is with men and he will live with them. They will be his people and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes.’
Finally, the King of the Kingdom of God
Everything about the Kingdom – the character of the subjects, the nature of this Kingdom, flows from the nature of the King – he is the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the all-powerful one, who nevertheless is also the Lamb on the throne, the one who was slain for your sins and mine.
What a King and what a privilege to be subjects in his Kingdom!
© Patricia Higton: see conditions for reproduction